I've always felt a propriety interest in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin - and it all stems back to a book project I did during the 2006-07 season with Dave King, a Phoenix Coyotes' assistant coach, who was behind the bench of three Canadian men's Olympic hockey teams. That year, King took his vast international resume to Russia, where he became the first Canadian to coach in what was then known as the Super League.
Malkin's peer, Alex Ovechkin, had left for the NHL already, but he stayed behind to play one more season, which permitted King's Magnitogorsk team to fashion an extraordinary regular season, much of thanks to the play of his teenage star.
King and I spoke almost every week and almost every week he had another anecdote relating to Malkin's rapid-fire development. In fact, about the only criticism that King ever levelled towards him was that when things went sour - in the way they inevitably do, even for the most talented and precocious players - Malkin would revert to individual play and go all lone wolf, trying to do everything by himself. Sometimes, it even worked. Mostly it did not.
Anyone who watched the final of the 2007 world junior tournament saw that first hand. Malkin played for Russia in Vancouver. This was a year after the seminal North Dakota tournament and virtually all the stars of that event - from Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry and the rest - had graduated to the NHL. Malkin didn't - and his presence made the Russians the favourites in Vancouver against a Brent Sutter-coached team that featured Steve Downie and the shutdown defence pair of Marc Staal and Ryan Parent. Malkin had a great tournament, but a terrible final game - Canada negated him at every turn and as soon as Malkin started to go solo, well, it was over for the Russians.
Malkin was on my mind again this week, as the Penguins passed through Calgary, for two reasons. One, he is mired in the same sort of slump that King once talked about - and according to coach Dan Bylsma, he is trying to play himself out of it the way he always did, by doing too much himself. Secondly, Malkin was on his way to Vancouver - the Penguins play the Canucks Saturday night - on an 11-game goalless drought, even after Pittsburgh swept a pair of games in Alberta Wednesday and Thursday. Tomorrow's visit will be a world junior homecoming of sorts for him and also a chance to visit the venue, GM Place, where he'll try to win gold for Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Malkin is different than Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers in that he doesn't grant interviews on game days. His English is broken at the best of times anyway, so getting his take on things proved unsuccessful as he ventured through Calgary.
But I did put a question about Malkin to Bylsma because communication was an issue for King in his days coaching him. Knowing that Malkin needed to make better use of his teammates to get his own game back on track, how did Bylsma get that message across?
"I can unequivocally say there is no language barrier when talking to Evgeni Malkin," answered Bylsma. "He's really smart. It may not be perfect English in front of the cameras. It may not be perfect English in private either, but … he gets it. He definitely understands everything. He's a guy who wants more from himself and expects more from himself; looks at certain aspects of our team and says, 'I need to provide more.' And he wears it on his sleeve.